Email has been around since the 1970s.
Effective email management is a system that has been tested, tried, and had its problems solved for over fifty years now.
Here’s what it looks like.
The Effective Email Management Endgame
It helps to know what the end-state for effective email management looks like:
- Inbox zero.
- No addiction to email.
- No stress over email.
- Email as just another tool that you use for your work and personal life.
Once set up, effective email management means spending ten, twenty, thirty minutes tops on your email on a daily basis.1And as we will see, the initial setup should only take a couple of hours.
Two Different Approaches to Email
There are two different approaches to managing your email.
1. Folder categorisation
The first is called folder categorisation and it is what it sounds like.
You set up different folders, labels or tags for your email and as emails come in, you sort them into various folders.
This approach comes from the days when email search wasn’t very good, and the easiest way to find older emails was to go to a folder and scroll down.
If you are going to take this approach, I recommend assigning one label maximum per email to make emails easier to find.
2. Archive and search
The second approach is called archive and search.
Thanks to Gmail, email search is much improved nowadays, and it is quite feasible to simply archive all your email and search for it later when you need it.
I do not recommend mixing the two approaches. Pick whichever works better for your disposition and tendencies, and stick with it.
Principles of Effective Email Management
There are a few high-level principles to effective email management that are often overlooked.
1. Separate work and personal email accounts
Using the same email account for everything is a cardinal email management sin.
There is absolutely no reason nowadays to have only one email account.
I recommend that everyone at least have:
- A personal account.
- A work account.
Most companies will issue you a work email when you join. And you should already have a personal email set up.
All email apps nowadays have the ability to add multiple accounts so there is no excuse not to separate your work and personal emails.
You can even take this one step further and have a third email account for the email newsletters you subscribe to.
2. Email should be IMAP, not POP3
Back in the earlier days of the Internet your email address was issued by your ISP and operated on a POP3 protocol.
What this meant was that an email server would receive your email and hold it until you downloaded it. And once you downloaded it, it would be deleted from the server and the only copy would be on your computer.
If this copy was deleted, then it was lost, forever.
When Internet speeds were still slow and storage was expensive, this made sense.
But we don’t live in those times anymore.
Internet speeds are now fast and cloud storage is cheap, and as a result most email nowadays is based on IMAP.2Before this companies had to mess around with expensive Exchange and Blackberry servers to get IMAP.
With IMAP, your email still goes to a server. But when you “download” the email, it copies it to your computer and keeps a copy on the server. And even better, it compares the copies on each of your devices and keeps them all in sync!
This is vastly superior to the old POP3 protocol, and it means that you can access your email on multiple devices and have them all in-sync in real time.
Believe it or not some companies out there are still using the old POP3 protocol for managing their email 😳. Moving to an IMAP service like Office 365 or GSuite fixes about fifty percent of their email problems.
3. Messaging > Email
This is so important that I have an entire guide to why messaging is superior to email and a guide to the business hierarchy of communication.
Email should not be used for internal communications within companies.
Getting this right fixes the other fifty percent of email problems that companies have.
4. Inbox Zero
Inbox zero is a popular email management concept and a very effective one.
It says that your email inbox should have no or few emails in it at any given time—they should be handled, sorted or archived.
What About Email Apps and Email Clients?
Email apps and clients are nice-to-haves.
As with most things time management, the principles are more important than any particular apps.
If you follow this guide to effective email management, you will find that most of the extra functionality offered just gets in the way of using email properly.
Your Effective Email Management Setup
Let’s take a look at how to set up effective email management.
You can do these steps in any order, but they should all be done to create a solid foundation for email management.
1. Set up your email interface
You will want to customise your email app’s/service’s settings and interface to your liking.
For example, in Gmail I usually:
- Hide the chat.
- Turn off inbox categories.
- Turn off markers.
- Hide labels that I don’t use, e.g., Snoozed.
- Turn off nudges.
- Turn on keyboard shortcuts.
This is all about personal preference and the more you use your email app or service, the more you will know what you use and don’t use.
2. Unsubscribe from newsletters
If you have a lot of newsletter subscriptions, I recommend unsubscribing from the ones you don’t read. You can figure this out by the fact that you end up archiving them every time you see them in your inbox.
You can do this manually or via the “unsubscribe” function that’s built into most email apps nowadays.
You can also use a service like unroll.me, but read their privacy terms and conditions carefully before doing so.
3. Set up your filters and forwards
There are some emails that you want to/have to receive but don’t need to pay attention to right now.
For these, you can set up email filters and forwards so that they are out of sight and out of mind.
For example, I have a filter for my online shopping orders to mark them as read and move them into an “online orders” folder I have set up.
If you use an email-notification-heavy system like Jira or Confluence, you can do the same thing with the updates you receive over email too.4Or better, try to disable them within the system itself.
4. Set up your folders and tags
If you are using the folder categorisation approach to email management, you want to set up some basic folders to start with. You can always add more later.
Here are some starting lists.
Personal folders ---- @hold @reply health money personal shopping travel Work folders ---- @hold @reply
Tip: some email clients like Gmail will let you assign colours to labels, which can be useful for highlighting @hold and @reply.
The rest of your work folders will be dependent on the nature of your role. You can even set up folders for projects and then hide them once the projects are done.
@hold is for emails where you are waiting on someone/something before you can action or reply to the email.
@reply is for emails that you can reply to now, but it will take more than two minutes so you want to leave them for a dedicated email handling session.
If you are using the archive and search approach, you don’t need to do this, though you may still find the @hold and @reply labels useful.
5. Archive your existing inbox emails
If you have hundreds (or thousands) of old emails sitting in your inbox, I recommend just archiving all of them.
It is likely that these will never need to be looked at, and if they do, they will be in your archives and can be dug out later.
Doing this will save you a lot of time.
Daily Email Usage
Now that you know your approach, the main principles and are set up for effective email management, what do you actually do on a daily basis to manage your email?
1. Pick a few times a day to check email
The first thing is to pick two-to-three times a day to check your email and stick to those.5I do before lunch and before finishing work for the day.
Unless you work in a customer-service or similar role, don’t leave your email always-on.
2. Triage your email
The second thing is to triage your email when you do check it. Like this:
For each email, you can:
- Archive it.6There is no reason to delete email nowadays.
- File/label it into a folder if using folder categorisation.
- Reply if it takes you under two minutes.
- Mark it for a dedicated email handling session later. You can do this by moving it into the @hold folder if you are waiting on something, or @reply if you will need more than two minutes to write a reply.
What this means is that each time you open your email and triage it, you should be spending only ten-to-fifteen minutes in there. You’ll fire out some quick replies, file away anything that doesn’t require an action, and label the longer replies for later.
I recommend clearing the longer replies once every couple of days or even once a week. They usually require you to compile extra information or sit and think before replying.
3. Use email on your phone effectively
The third thing is to use email on your phone effectively.
Turn off your notifications for your email apps completely—they just create unnecessary stress.
Yes, even turn off the red notification bubble.
Don’t use your mobile device as your main way to handle email. It’s slower and takes more time than is necessary.
Simply use your phone for triaging email when you have some spare gap time.
Archive, file, and read email on your phone yes, but leave the replying for when you are back at a computer.
Advanced Effective Email Management
Here are some advanced tips for effective email management.
1. Use keyboard shortcuts
All email apps have keyboard shortcuts.
Learn them and use them—they’ll save you a lot of time.
2. Ignore integrations
There are a lot of add-ons and extensions for email nowadays that offer to integrate your email with your task list, notes, CRM, appointments etc.
My general advice is to ignore all of these.
If your email is being used properly, then you won’t need them.
Stop trying to turn your email into something that it is not.
3. Pipe important things into your messaging app
Really important emails should be piped into your messaging program, e.g., Slack.
You can also use Zapier if you want more granular control over this.
4. Automate your email with Zapier
You can also use Zapier to automate all sorts of email handling on your behalf.
For example, you can have Zapier create PDF files from email-only receipts and then save them to your Dropbox or Google Drive.
5. Don’t go mobile-only
While it is possible to go mobile-only for managing your email I don’t recommend it.7And would only do it if you are from a country where home computers are still relatively rare.
The set up and usage process is the same.
It will just be slower as there is less screen real estate and it takes more taps to do the same thing that can be done with a couple of clicks on a computer.
What To Do Next
If you implement everything in this guide, you’ll be able to effectively handle email like a pro.
This means no stress, no addictions and no worries over email—it’s just another tool that you use to communicate.
All you need to do is:
- Decide on your approach.
- Remember the principles of effective email management.
- Do your initial set up.
- And triage effectively.
- And as we will see, the initial setup should only take a couple of hours.
- Before this companies had to mess around with expensive Exchange and Blackberry servers to get IMAP.
- Mailplane acts as a wrapper around a Gmail window and lets me tab between my work/personal email accounts.
- Or better, try to disable them within the system itself.
- I do before lunch and before finishing work for the day.
- There is no reason to delete email nowadays.
- And would only do it if you are from a country where home computers are still relatively rare.
Photo by Muukii.